Peter Batten muses on the Beautiful Game . . .
My friend Tony travels this world accompanied by a dry cynicism. He takes it with him during the summer when he takes his seat in our beautiful cricket ground to watch the ins and outs of Sussex. He has taken it with him to his seat in the new Amex stadium.
But something has changed. When I met Tony on weekdays he used to reflect on the performance of our beloved Seagulls. The dry cynicism sat firmly on his shoulder like Long John Silver’s parrot. Now he sometimes greets me with a smile! What has changed? I am sure you know. Thanks to the successful management of Chris Hughton the Seagulls are in the Premier League. Like several of my friends who have season tickets at the Amex, Tony alternates between delight and anxiety. Cynicism has been set aside, for a while. He can hardly believe what is happening. Because I am an Arsenal supporter there are even a few jokes about the Seagulls finishing the season above Arsenal in the league table.
But the Seagulls have stepped into a Mad, Mad World. I first went to a Football League match in 1945. Over the years there were changes, improvements even. A few brave souls – Jimmy Hill in particular – fought to improve the wages earned by the players. Then came the Premier League and the Stock Market. I was slow to anticipate what would happen. The period of maximum lunacy began about 20 years ago. If you are not familiar with this mad world, let me sum it up. Players began to be signed for many millions of pounds. They began to be paid many thousands of pounds every week! Top managers were brought in from all over the world to try and achieve success. Meanwhile, the cost of attending a Premiership match began to rise sharply.
While I have been writing this article, a report has been published which shows that fewer young people aged 18-25 are attending top matches. They cannot afford the ticket prices. Here is a simple example of the lunacy which now reigns. I wondered why an Arsenal player was not signing a new contract. It was explained to me that he had been offered £75,000 pounds per week, but he was insisting, through his agent, that he was worth £100,000. Agents, by the way, are probably the principal cause of the hideous inflation that has taken place.
How can this mad, mad world be brought back to sanity? Many major European football clubs are owned by their supporters and their local community. Even they cannot escape the worst effects of this madness, if they wish to compete in major leagues and tournaments. How will the Seagulls survive while millions upon millions are being spent? To thrive in the Premier League seems an impossible dream. For the moment, fans like my friend Tony, with their seats at the Amex, can marvel at the astonishing skills of the players that some clubs can afford. They can encourage and support Chris Hughton as he and his coaching team pit their wits against several of the world’s top managers. At the moment the players are doing their very best to compete at this level. Any true football fan, who hates the mad, mad world, will wish them success.
One last remembrance. One sunny May afternoon in 1980 I sat down in the living room of my house in Cheam with a young classical guitarist from Greece. We began to open some cans of lager. He was in London to record some programmes for the BBC. I was his host for two or three days. I soon discovered that he loved to play football – as I had at his age. I switched on the television and we began to watch the Cup Final. He was enthralled. Arsenal won. I even remember that Alan Sunderland scored the winning goal. Ah, the days beyond recall!